Pub revamp rockstars Cross over
The spot atop Kings Cross' iconic CocaCola sign has just been taken over.
I went to Piano Room twice in my life, both when someone else was paying for drinks and I still hated it. Trying too hard to be suave, the venue came off a bit like a B-grade hotel lounge overrun by preening assholes that happened one of the most happening intersections in Sydney. Nobody was remotely surprised when the place, like many other traditional nightclubs in the area, quietly closed its doors recently. The heyday of lining up to have a bouncer size up whether the girls you’re with have appropriate cleavage to warrant your eventual spending of too much money on watered down vodka and house music has certainly passed in this area, and only time will tell if Marquee can join ivy in getting away with that kind of attitude. What has surreptitiously crept in is a new form of hybrid pub; part-dancing, part-eating, all-drinking affairs that have a more relaxed feel than their predecessors. And nobody does these better than Jamie Wirth and James Miller.
Santa Barbara is the sixth outing for these guys in only two years, and Wirth’s eighth if you count the Flinders and Duke he opened with fellow DJ Angus Gruzman. But with the exception of the somewhat-outlying Abercrombie Hotel, it’s their first foray outside of the strong network of Surry Hills venues, from the Forresters up on Foveaux to the Norfolk and Carrington below. It’s also a shitload bigger; with a 300-person capacity, the longest bar you’ve ever seen and a serious sound system hiding in the decked-out walls. Given how successful the Wirth formula of taking dying pubs and giving them a new set of legs has been, I was curious to see how he’d cope with something that was designed for a completely different purpose.
The biggest change with this place is that it suddenly feels like you’re at a bar rather than a club. The windows open onto booths which fan around the edges and create the illusion of being somewhere completely different to the Cross, aided by the tiled floors, ridiculously kitsch trappings - a Wirth standard, this one comes with a giant polar bear in the stairwell, vintage Chinese knick-knacks and faded pin-up shots of topless girls from the sixties – and a drinks menu that leans towards tropical. There are leather booths and benches everywhere that encourage group socialising, and while there’s no real dance floor per se, you can still see how and where it could happen. Everyone talks to everyone – it’s pretty much unavoidable. There’s probably a far higher likelihood of picking up here than at the Piano Room that sat there before.
Bearing in mind that they’ve already done Spanish, Italian, US and Mexican fare, one wonders what the Jamies had left up their sleeves. Santa Barbara bills itself as ‘U.S.Asian’, which is totally useless to anyone trying to sell it to their friends but incredibly tasty. It’s kind of like the oriental fare you’d expect on a summer getaway in California, easy-to-eat hybrid sliders that actually fill you up but don’t require cutlery. There’s duck, kingfish, crab and bulgoli beef, delicious Maholo Popcorn and a whole lot of Eastern variations on the non-fussy eats we’ve come to love from these guys. Because they’ve gone so far out there on this one – seriously, it’s like New York food trucks colliding with a trendy noodle stand - it really is stuff you’re not going to find anywhere else. I swear I had something with both beef and prawn in it. It was epic.
When you combine this with twists on Singapore slings and Pina Coladas, fridges full of beer and never-ending recycled decoration, Sanata Barbara is more like a grown-up playground than anything else. There is seriously non-stop stimulation from the minute you walk through the door, and it will certainly stick out like a sore thumb (quite literally, thanks to that big neon sign underneath) and should attract some decent foot traffic.
Sydney-siders have much to thank Jamie Wirth for. Back when he used ‘Doom’ as a surname, he and his DJ comrades rescued our nightlife from an endless procession of bouncers and boring music with their weekly parties that took stock of the indie-electro resurgence and promptly shoved it into a high-speed, take-no-prisoners blender for their Bang Gang residencies. It may not look like it, but he’s taken a more grown-up approach to the same problem with his venues, questioning why they have to only do one thing in a certain way and playing with expectations to keep everyone on their toes. Nobody would have let him near this piece of real estate if he hadn’t already proven his mettle a few times over. Now it’s up to the more ambitious to get in there and experience the weirdness. Santa Barbara is definitely not for everyone, which is great. They can go and annoy the rest of the Cross.